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GOP Says Wicker Has Momentum

Party Sees Scruggs Link To Musgrove

Republicans are hoping that another strong fundraising quarter, an ongoing media blitz and a dash of negative attacks on his Democratic opponent — courtesy of the national party — will add up to summer momentum for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in his special election campaign.

Wicker, a former seven-term Congressman from the northern portion of the state, is facing off against former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) in the special election to fill the remaining four years left in the term of retired Sen. Trent Lott (R). Although Mississippi is usually considered safe Republican territory in federal elections, the well-known Musgrove will certainly benefit this fall from the fact that in Mississippi, special election candidates appear on the ballot without their party affiliations listed.

In the few polls that have been released on the contest so far, Wicker has been down or statistically tied with Musgrove. However, Republican insiders say Wicker is due for a bounce this summer, especially after he posts a second straight quarter of strong fundraising numbers.

Second-quarter fundraising numbers aren’t due to be released until next week, but Wicker certainly turned heads after the first quarter, showing more than $2.7 million in the bank compared to Musgrove’s $337,000 on hand. And Wicker has continued to hold high-profile and high-dollar fundraisers — the most recent being a $1,000 per-ticket luncheon with President Bush in Jackson last week that drew more than 500 people.

It doesn’t seem likely that Musgrove will be able to make up a more than $2 million cash-on-hand disadvantage this quarter, although the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — with a huge fundraising lead over its Republican counterpart — could prove to be an equalizer in the money race. Musgrove spokesman Adam Bozzi would only say that “we will have the money we need to run a campaign that will win. Having more money doesn’t necessarily win you an election when you’re not spending it wisely.”

At the same time that second-quarter fundraising numbers are set to be released, Wicker’s camp expects to benefit from a vigorous May, June and July television ad campaign in which Wicker is promoting his record in areas downstate and along the Gulf Coast where he is less well-known. Wicker went up with his fourth ad of the cycle late last week. Three of those ads have focused on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and one has been a bio spot.

Musgrove, by contrast, is not yet on the air.

But what could make Wicker’s summer political offensive even more potent is the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee is continuing to hound Musgrove for his ties to colorful lawyer Dickie Scruggs — one of the richest and most powerful people in the state.

Scruggs, who was sentenced in late June after pleading guilty to conspiring to bribe a state judge, has been a major donor to past Musgrove campaigns, and Republicans hope to play up those ties in the coming election. Earlier this year, national Republicans were highlighting a series of federal indictments issued in connection with the state’s awarding of contracts for the building of a Mississippi Beef Processors plant, which were awarded during Musgrove’s term as governor.

Democrats say Republicans are trying to play up the Scruggs scandal because the Wicker campaign is running scared. Democratic officials pointed out that Wicker was also the beneficiary of some — albeit significantly smaller — Scruggs donations during his time in the House. And Scruggs is known for being close to Lott, Wicker’s predecessor. But they also say Wicker is cozy with Washington, D.C., lobbyists and has a history of requesting earmarks for campaign contributors.

Last week, Bozzi said voters in Mississippi see the attacks over Musgrove’s past relationship with Scruggs as little more than a “Washington game.”

“When you’re in a change election and when the economy is bad and we are seeing record gas prices, Mississippians aren’t going to respond to stale innuendos and false attacks. What they want is better government,” Bozzi said.

But with the news of Scruggs’ and his son’s sentencing over the last two weeks, NRSC officials have been quick to talk up Musgrove’s associations with “corrupt contributors” and are clearly hoping to make the issue an albatross around Musgrove’s campaign heading into the fall.

Citing tens of thousands of dollars of political donations over the course of several years, NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said, “We have information on Musgrove’s involvement with Dickie Scruggs, and I think that we have a responsibility to educate people who don’t already know about these connections.”

But for the time being, it appears that the attacks against Musgrove will continue to come from the NRSC and not Wicker.

When asked about Musgrove and Scruggs, Wicker spokesman Ryan Annison said, “Sen. Wicker is proud of his record as Congressman and Ronnie Musgrove has yet to provide any real substance as to why he ought to be elected to the United States Senate or to answer the calls of the NRSC regarding Mr. Scruggs’ sentencing.”

One reason why the Wicker camp seems to be letting the NRSC do the bulk of the attacking might be found in a pair of recent primary races and one special election that took place this spring in Mississippi.

In the open 3rd district Republican primary this spring, Rankin County Republican Party Chairman Gregg Harper’s surprising victory has been attributed to his ability to stay out of the nasty mudslinging that seemed to suck in most of the other Republican candidates in the crowded field.

Meanwhile, in the 1st district special election to fill Wicker’s House seat, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) engaged in a bruising primary battle that left wounds that still may not be healed. By contrast, the Democratic primary battle in the 1st was a generally positive affair. In the end, while Davis (along with the national GOP and several outside interest groups) vigorously attacked Democrat Travis Childers in the special general, Democrats were able to pull out an upset victory in what was once a safely Republican district.

So as the Senate special election has developed, it may be that Wicker prefers to keep talking about his own accomplishments and concentrate on raising his name ID in areas of the state where he is less familiar, rather than going negative on Musgrove four months out from the election.

Asked why the Scruggs and beef plant allegations are coming from the NRSC and not Wicker’s campaign, Fisher said last week that, “At this point Roger Wicker has got a strong message so he doesn’t need to go negative. … So I think our role is to make sure the information we have on the Musgrove connection to Scruggs gets out to the public.”

Although Annison said Wicker has been preparing from day one for a hard race all the way until Election Day, Fisher said she expects that over the coming weeks, Wicker will put to rest Senate Democrats’ talk of picking up a seat in the Magnolia State.

“I think that Wicker has already proved he’s a much stronger candidate than Musgrove,” she said. “If he proves it again this next quarter and Musgrove can’t raise the money that he needs to, I think it’s going to be easy to show that this race is pretty much over.”

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